On Crutches

April 14, 2011 

Unless you're one of my midnight Friday faithful, I'll have given a career day presentation to middle school students by the time you read this. In the days leading up, they sent me the questionnaire handed to students, which ends with, "Will your career be around in 20 years?"

While I have no doubt there will be a need for professional photographers in 20 years, the business of photojournalism is ever-changing and I don't think anybody really knows where it's heading. Staff gigs have always been sparse and competitive. I must have applied to 40 different papers after graduating college in 2006 before landing here, but back then, there would usually be 20 or 30 open positions around the country posted on the online job listings I scoured.

Today, it's surprising if there are more than half a dozen and most are looking for "Multimedia Journalists" instead of "Photojournalists." The curriculum at the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communication has changed since I was collecting credits there to better prepare a growing number of journalism students for the mutli-platform storytelling most employers covet.

Here at the Herald, we never geared up to do video right. Armed with early generation Flip video cameras (R.I.P.), we dipped our toes into online multimedia with wind-blasted audio from the poor on-board mics and low-res footage hastily edited to meet daily deadlines.

At the same time, we started producing photo galleries. And in a not-so-web-savvy community where this little gem was deemed to be an acceptable website in 2008, the 20 page views we tally when somebody clicks through a 20-image gallery produces sexier stats than the one we get from watching a video that takes two or three times as long to produce. We still put together the occasional multimedia slideshow, but photo-staff-produced videos are all but extinct.

The lack of investment in video equipment isn't surprising with how tight money is to maintain our existing photo gear, though, and I've opted to spend my own money on lighting gear instead. Having survived three rounds of layoffs and buyouts since joining the staff in January 2008, I know the axe could fall at any time, and I figured being proficient at lighting portraits is a much more bankable skill than being a sub-par videographer.

As a result, numerous blog entries have chronicled my journey from producing craptacular portraiture to churning out some decent shots every now and then.

And though I've gotten better, when I'm at a loss for what to do with a portrait, the gimmick I lean hardest on for support is to include a bright sunburst. After having Othello javelin star Christine Kirkwood stab some into the grass to try and make something out of nothing, I still relied on the technique, hoping it might make up for the terribly messy background:

And continuing to use the crutch in lieu of cool clouds when I moved to clean up the background:

Thankfully, I moved the sun behind her for the shot we ran:

I'll even go to the effect when indoors, as I did while making frames for Chiawana High School's production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:

My hope was that the shine would evoke a magical feeling, but now I'm thinking it may have been put to better use lighting more of the inside of the wardrobe.

Although I've thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of improving my lighting skills, my heart is still in photojournalism — even while required to lean on the cute kid crutch. When Christ the King School Principal Nicole Anderson called to let us know that a parent was bringing in some baby owls to show the kids, I wasn't all that jazzed. I definitely appreciated the call on the slow day, though, and made an OK shot:

A follow-up call to Lynn Tompkins, director of Blue Mountain Wildlfe (where the baby owls were going), yielded a little newsiness, however, as I found out the organization had already taken in nearly as many owls in a month as it did last year. That owl-tailed nicely into a plug for the nonprofit's upcoming fundraiser to help cover the $175 a day it costs to dish out more than 500 mice to nearly 100 ravenous barn owls.

Hard-hitting journalism it is not, but I strive to answer the "so what?" whenever possible. It's part of my job as a photojournalist, which is why it's so disheartening to have people always asking if I do journalism in addition to photography.

As the lone responder to last week's rollover on Interstate 82, I got as much information as I could from the scene after photographing:

There's no telling what other crazy stuff might pop into the rest of law enforcement's day, so relying on a forthcoming media release before deadline can be a risky strategy. Assistant City Editor Kristina Lord (who makes sure my weekly manifestos are coherent) gave me the byline even though she had mostly arranged the notes I relayed by phone into a rough story. The next day, somebody in the office joked that I'd have to start carrying a notepad with me out on assignment, lest the editors start expecting me to write more often.

As if it would be possible to gather the names, facts and quotes I put into cutlines without diligent note taking. And I wouldn't even resent that minor implication if the thinking behind it wasn't so prevalent. I've had people offer backhanded words of encouragement, insisting that if I keep at photography, I might get to do some journalism someday. Even The Wire, my favorite TV show ever, includes a scene in which hero editor Gus Haynes mocks an unseen photographer and derides an unseen photo editor over the phone for a house fire photo that shows a burnt doll in the foreground. He goes on to joke about how the photographer must have a trunk full of burned dolls — seemingly implying that news photos are routinely staged.

The ease and affordability of digital photography and high-profile cases of digital manipulation certainly feed this popular misconception, and suddenly anybody with a DSLR who's made a pretty sunset photo thinks he's on par with the working photojournalist.

Gone, apparently, are the days where a gripping moment in time is expected to spark profound outrage and change. I don't remember much attention stateside when 15-year-old Fabienne Cherisma was killed, negating the comparisons some have drawn between that image and Nick Ut's iconic photo of a naked Kim Phúc fleeing a napalm attack. Most of the conversation now is about the controversy surrounding the photo, including questions about the ethics of so many photojournalists covering the scene and discussions about whether her body was moved for the award winning photo. It seems that's often the case, when the controversy shrouds the intended impact of the work.

With so many great visual storytellers out there, there is an overload of strong work being produced — much of which doesn't even reach the public it's supposed to be educating. Even someone like myself, who is so invested in this industry, can't keep up with it all. I'm shamefully terrible at keeping up with the fantastic work published on sites like Mediastorm, Vewd and The Raw File, and I'm guessing the majority of people who regularly visit are photojournalists and photo editors.

So if a student asks me whether my career will still exist in 20 years, I'm not sure how I'll answer. While the business of photojournalism may be on crutches, the contemporary quality of work seems to be better than ever. But with uncertain vehicles to deliver that work, weekend warriors thrilled to devalue it and continued public ignorance toward a profession that should have earned more respect by now, maybe the better question is whether I'll still be banging my head against the same walls in 20 years. I'm only three years in, and still plenty hungry, but it's not hard to see all that's unappetizing.


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